By JOE McFARLAND
It’s hard not to see how unique the 2001 Little League World Series was on a variety of levels.
It was the year the annual tournament expanded to 16 teams, eight from the United States and eight from around the world. As a result of the expansion, the Little League Volunteer Stadium in South Williamsport, Pennsylvania was also renovated to accommodate the additional games.
On the field, 2001 ushered in a changing of the guard as Flora Stansbury became the first female umpire to call the championship game. And after it wrapped up, the Little League World Series was embroiled in controversy after one of the players from the Bronx, Danny Almonte, was found to be two years older than the maximum age.
The 2001 Little League World Series was also the last time a team from Alberta represented Canada. A rare feat in the country’s history, as the only other time a squad from Wild Rose Country had traveled to Pennsylvania was in 1977 when Lethbridge Norcrest wore the maple leaf.
As the Whalley, B.C. club captured the attention of baseball lovers in Canada watching the World Series this year, Alberta Dugout Stories caught up with two members of that last Alberta team to go the distance.
The 2001 edition of the Calgary West Jays were no strangers to winning. It all started a couple of years earlier when the core of the team was together as 10-year-olds, according to coach Bernie Bajnok.
“We took them to a mid-August tournament in Kamloops,” Bajnok recalled. “Playing older kids and we actually did quite well. So we knew we had a pretty good group of kids over that three-year period.”
It was an extremely competitive few years for the team and as they approached the playoff run as 12-year-olds, they knew it would be a dogfight. They believed that if they could get past the other Calgary teams, particularly Fish Creek, they had a chance at doing some damage at the Prairie playdowns in Lethbridge.
“We knew right off the bat that the other Calgary team would be our toughest task,” first baseman Matt Nemeth said.
As it turned out, they would meet a familiar rival in the final at Bill Kucheran Field: the Calgary Centennial Reds. Led by a three-hit performance from Nemeth and a no-hitter from Jesse Sawyer, the Jays walked away with an easy 7-0 victory to earn their first visit to the Canadian championships.
That game did come with some drama though, as Sawyer’s no-no faced a lengthy delay thanks to a lightning storm.
“You just have to stay calm and not get too worried about it,” Sawyer told the Lethbridge Herald at the time.
Nemeth remembers the current Lethbridge Bulls and Prairie Baseball Academy coach as a “man amongst boys” at the time, as he was the go-to guy both on the hill and in the batter’s box throughout the Jays’ run.
In all of their appearances at the national championships, Alberta made just nine trips to the finals heading into 2001. In a tournament seemingly dominated by B.C. and Ontario, it was hard to blame the Calgary West squad for feeling like the underdogs in Vancouver.
They had to claw their way just to get into the playoffs. Starting the round-robin with a 2-2 tournament, they needed to beat Vancouver Little Mountain, the team that was billeting them.
“It was definitely interesting,” Bajnok chuckled, remembering the 4-3 win. It came in dramatic fashion as well, with Chris Wilkinson tripling in the winning run in the bottom of the sixth and final inning.
The win set up a semi-final matchup with Victoria Gordon Head.
“We knew we had Jesse on the mound, so we felt pretty confident,” Nemeth said.
And confident they were. Sawyer struck out fifteen batters and allowed just two hits in a 5-2 win, allowing the Jays to become the first Prairies team to make it to the Canadian final since 1990 (Edmonton’s Confederation Park).
“I remember Barry Sawyer (Jesse’s father and team head coach) saying something before the championship game that no one expected us to get there, so he told us just to go out there, have fun and see what happens,” Nemeth said.
They were in tough, as they were facing the defending Canadian champions from Toronto High Park. Wilkinson was the other ace in the Jays’ arsenal, and he struck out nine hitters during a 5-3 victory. Bajnok’s son, Spencer, scored twice on passed balls in the contest while Kevin Kobe and Michael Dussesoy delivered bases-loaded RBI singles in the fifth inning to break a 2-2 tie. Sawyer added some insurance with a solo blast in the sixth to book their tickets to South Williamsport.
“We had dreamed about the possibility but it probably didn’t sink in until the next day,” Bajnok smiled again. Little did they know, they were about to embark on a whirlwind trip of a lifetime.
The reality of the situation hit the Calgary team fast. They were on a flight headed to Toronto soon after being crowned national champions, where they caught a connecting flight to Harrisburg. They then got on a bus to South Williamsport.
“I remember taking the 1.5-hour bus ride and remember there being a lot of trees,” Nemeth said. “You pull into the complex, you’re on the very top of the hill and you see all the people sitting out there.”
They weren’t in Alberta anymore.
“It was one of those moments where it hits you right away,” he continued. “I’m sure the smiles were huge, the eyes were wide and you quickly understand how big of a deal this is.”
— Little League (@LittleLeague) September 23, 2018
While the diamonds were a dream, Bajnok said the facilities the team stayed at were just as impressive.
“Dorms for the athletes, a two-storey rec room with games, billiards, electronics, a swimming pool and a cafeteria above it all,” the current education advisor for the Western Hockey League’s Calgary Hitmen looked back. “Each kid got an opportunity to go to the media area where they could get pictures taken with different backgrounds.”
All the players were also sized up for a helmet, bat, glove, wristbands and their uniforms. Both Bajnok and Nemeth had a good giggle about how the Canadian jerseys that year were yellow and black, not the usual red and white of Canada, which wasn’t ever really fully explained to everyone.
The team also managed to catch one game before getting in a practice.
“The first night we were there, the playdowns for that zone were still going on,” Bajnok recalled. “So we watched the Williamsport team play the Bronx and that was the night Danny Almonte pitched a no-hitter.”
Nothing like setting the tone.
CLOSE BUT NO CIGAR
Sitting in the D pool, Canada had Guam, Mexico and Russia to contend with in the round-robin. Just one week after claiming the Canadian championship, they would do something the Lethbridge Norcrest team couldn’t do: muster up a win. The Calgary club knocked off Russia 5-1 to open the tournament.
“You just keep trying to say go out and relax with a smile on your face,” Bajnok said about the coaches’ message to the youngsters. “But you know, it was pretty intense.”
It was then on to Mexico, where the Alberta reps couldn’t hold on to a late lead and fell 6-5.
“There were definitely moments when you realize it’s more than just your average tournament,” Nemeth admitted. “I remember playing first base in that game against Mexico and the ball was hit to me. Suddenly, I’m hoping I can make the play as you just realize it’s more daunting than normal.”
Calgary was then in a win-or-go-home situation against Guam, who was already 2-0. The Canadian team had their workhorse, Sawyer, on the bump and he didn’t let them down. He went the distance in what turned out to be a nine-inning thriller. But a bases-loaded walk in the bottom of the ninth ended the dream season. In a masterful performance, Sawyer struck out 19 Guam batters.
“There were a couple of questionable calls in that game,” Bajnok said. “It was stressful going those three extra innings.”
After the game, the team met for the usual meeting.
“For us, I think that was the first time that it hit us it was coming to an end,” Nemeth stated. “There was that sense that we’re not done and there was more we could have done.”
Even in hindsight, the questions still linger.
“As time goes on, you appreciate it more for what it was,” he went on. “But immediately afterwards, we were of the sense that we left a little bit on the board and could have done a little better than we did.”
Now a broadcaster with CHAT Television in Medicine Hat, Nemeth feels he can fully appreciate all that he learned at the Little League World Series, including the exposure to the cameras and reporters. But it was more than that to him.
“One of the big things was just being exposed to so many different cultures and so many different kids from around the world,” he said. “It was a lot of fun seeing all of them come together in the dorms. It broadened my horizons as a 12-year-old.”
Bajnok also saw how the opportunity affected the players afterwards.
“I know a lot of kids, when they went on, had the World Series on their resume applying for their first jobs,” he smiled. “In the interviews, they said that was all they were being asked about.”
Both also admit to having a lot of memorabilia from South Williamsport.
“Pin trading is one of the big things down there and one of the most sought-after pins were the security guard pins,” Nemeth laughed. “They basically look like a really cool police shield.”
He said he still has his bats, baseballs and hats as well as the rain jackets they wore from the opening ceremonies. Nemeth also has a participation certificate and a medal which he hopes to find a good home for in his house.
“They didn’t leave us empty-handed, that’s for sure.”
Bajnok admits he “piggy-backed” off of his son and managed to keep quite a few items, including newspaper clippings from the trip, as even the local newspapers sent reporters to Pennsylvania.
“Boy did we get coverage,” he said. “We had a great send-off and then when we came back, we were met at the airport by the press.”
What both treasure most though are the memories.
“As a parent, I was just so happy for this group of kids and of course, your own kid,” Bajnok said proudly. “Being a little bit older, I was thinking to myself that ‘wow, it’s so good for these kids to experience it.’”
— Matt Nemeth (@MNem24) August 18, 2018
As a reporter now, Nemeth has good reason to sit down and watch games on livestream. Not only does he cheer for Canada, but he also has a soft spot for Japan, who won the tournament in 2001.
But he’ll never forget wearing the maple leaf.
“I think it means something at the time but it definitely means more as you go through life and you realize how special it is to do that,” Nemeth concluded. “Any time you represent your country, it’s one of the biggest honours that can bestowed on you. And it gets more and more important as time goes on.”